From Shanghai to John Wayne: Fairbairn and his knives
June 30, 2014 9:48 PM   Subscribe

Possibly the most loved and used fighting knife in the world, the Fairbain-Sykes Fighting Knife is a stilletto daggar designed and produced during WWII for commando troops and still used to this day. The knife was designed for a precise grip and a long thin blade that could go through a Soviet Army greatcoat to the ribs and slice, rather than tear, for faster death. The knife's history is worth a small book alone, but the two men who invented it also helped invent modern police fighting and close combat, and probably inspired Q from James Bond.

W.E. Fairbairn served in the British army and then in 1907 joined the Shanghai Municipal Police. Shanghai was then considered one of the most violent cities in the world with a tiny and overwhelmed police force. Fairbairn's response was to invent new tactics, equipment and training for the world's first anti-riot police unit and in his words: "Get tough, get down in the gutter, win at all costs... I teach what is called ‘Gutter Fighting.’ There’s no fair play, no rules except one: kill or be killed”

He invented a riot baton, bulletproof vest, a training room staged like an opium den, and other innovations like marking bullets at the base to track them later. That introduced him to E.A. Sykes, then the representative for Remington in Shangi, who quickly joined the Shanghai Municipal Police as a reserve officer.

Fairbairn invented his own martial arts, Defendu, a mix of judo, jiu jitso and chinese boxing that he had learned in Shanghai, as a way for police to restrain and defend themselves, distinct from the close quarter combat style he and Sykes later trained soldiers in. They also co-wrote one of the first and still relevant books on shooting for police, Shooting to Live (PDF). Fairbairn retired from the SMP in 1940 with over 600 non-training fights he survived and scars covering his entire body. According to his daughter Dorothea, he also bred goldfish and taught her bonsai, and never swore or drank.

During WWII, together with his friend Sykes, he developed the training for the Special Operations Executive and the newly formed commandos teams. Dubbed "Dangerous Dan" (no relation to Beano) and basically trained people how to kill other people with your little finger at Churchill's secret school, Beaulieu.

Both were very well-liked trainers. One trainee remembers Sykes as having "the manner and appearance of an elderly, amiable clergyman, combined with the speed and ferocity of a footpad; lulled by his soft tones and charmed by his benevolent smile, we would be startled to hear him conclude some demonstration with a snarled "Then you bring up your right knee into his testicles".

Fairbairn also wrote two widely distributed comic booklets on hand to hand fighting: Get Tough! training comic by Fairbairn (1942) and Hands Off! Fairbairn's comic book guide to self defence for women (Bonus: short feminist history review of the comic).

Sykes and Fairbairn fell out at the end of the war, although neither ever disclosed why. Sykes' much-loved wife died young of cancer, and he never remarried. He had to retire early in 1945 due to ill-health and died soon after. Post-war, Fairbairn went briefly by Cyprus and Singapore where he set up their riot police units, before dying at home in 1960 (probably too polite to kick Death to well, death).

Carrying on their training was Colonel Rex Applegate. Born and bred in Oregon to a family heritage of shooting, Applegate joined the military police where he was recruited to the OSS, forerunner to the CIA, and eventually met and became fast friends with the two men. Ironically, Applegate never went into combat because of a lung ailment. Instead, he poured his considerable energies into training other people on how to kill effectively and efficiently. Applegate's book Kill or Be Killed (scanned marked-up book PDF or hardcover) is a classic for combining military and police tactics.

Post-war, Applegate was a special advisor in Mexico, establishing their riot police and taught John Wayne how to shoot, still lecturing and teaching up to his death in 1998.

Applegate with Fairbairn's approval, also created a version of the knife, with a handle that could be differently weighted to change the balance point and a partially serrated blade, but it wasm't as popular as the original, except for the folding version. Or you could carry a Fairbairn's other knife, the Smatchet with your spork.

Finish off with some official training films from DoD have Applegate's classic training films on shooting and why war is not sport, or just check out an entire channel of Fairbairn beating people up.

(Gutterfighting previously on metafilter mentions Fairbairn)
posted by viggorlijah (30 comments total) 88 users marked this as a favorite
Killer post.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:09 PM on June 30, 2014 [13 favorites]

Whoa. Looks like the Achtung! Cthulhu campaign I've been thinking about may get a lot more specific than "Fairbairn-Sykes knife -- 1D4+2+db." Thanks!
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:22 PM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

It upsets me that one person should have so much manliness, and I should have so little.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 11:19 PM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Excellent article, though it could use a decent picture of the knife itself.

I first encountered the near religious reverence people had for the knife in the old James Bond RPG, where it was described as being based on an ancient Egyptian design. In the game Q described it as "The most serviceable knife we have". A fitting compliment, considering the source.
posted by happyroach at 11:29 PM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Kill or Get Killed may well be a terrific book, but it doesn't make a good coffee table centerpiece. At least, that's what the judge said.
posted by Edgewise at 11:42 PM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

The s/f dagger was issued to all of us in the LRRP platoon. The Recondo School that was formed around our basic course at Nha Trang gave the daggers as a graduation present to those who managed to finish the course at the head of his class. The rest of the guys picked them up when the got back to their units. We were trained in various ways to employ it. I never used mine, only took it out of its sheath to survey its edges and keep it lightly oiled. Another favorite among the guys in my platoon was a Randal fighting knife. It was similar to the standard issue utility knife, but with much better steel, and a couple of minor features that made it more handy in a fight than the field knife. The s/f dagger was made to perform a limited range of functions, while the field knife and Randal could be employ to bust the wire on C-ration boxes, or whack down small trees--these two were definitely inferior to the s/f dagger for quickly, and with a minimum of fuss, bringing your enemy to a complete halt.

In addition to s/f dagger I carried a short survival knife of the sort issued to Navy pilots. It had a whetstone in a pocket on the sheath, and a serrated spine. It was nearly indestructible. When we were on patrol, we had very few camp chores: mostly just add water to the rations--we carried chubs of dehydrated rice in plastic bags, and spiced them with dried fish and peppers--and we never made fires or pitched tents, so as a camp knife, it was used mostly when we bivouacked with the infantry. It was a passable can opener.

The employment of the s/f knife was more than just a wet dream. One block of instruction we had was called "Sentry Stalking & Silent killing." From time to time we paired off and went through the drills with our daggers sheathed. Other teams had their own operational procedures, but we used a .22 caliber automatic pistol, fitted with a silencer, to do chores the Sykes knives were meant to do. The only person I knew who ever used his s/f knife told me he'd use his pistol next time.

Our hand to hand paradigm was the O'neal method, for those of you with an interest in minutia. It's a sort of street fighting laced with throws and arm bars, eye-pokes and nut kicks. O'neal, also, was a scholarly looking sort, I'm told. I felt prepared when I got into LRRP, but in retrospect, I'm pretty sure I would not have done well trying to disarm a guy running at me with his bayonet pointed at my throat. Looking a back on it, it's less of an adventure than it seemed at the time.

It took a while to come to grips with the regret I used to feel for never having killed with the dagger. I guess that seems sort of out there, but I believe it's a measure of progress to know that I'm not like that anymore. I've come to understand that context can have a pervasive, if subtle, control over things we value. You can rationalize a lot easier than you can explain.
posted by mule98J at 11:48 PM on June 30, 2014 [39 favorites]

The knife was designed for a precise grip and a long thin blade that could go through a Soviet Army greatcoat to the ribs and slice, rather than tear, for faster death.

The knife was designed to kill our WWII allies?
posted by Mister Bijou at 12:03 AM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.
posted by Grimgrin at 12:18 AM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's not that the knife was design to kill people wearing Soviet greatcoats, exactly, but rather that Soviet greatcoats were the thickest clothing with which anyone in the war was equipped. So the knife was designed to be able to penetrate and kill through at least that thickness. If the Nazis had worn something thicker than those greatcoats the knives would have been made to penetrate that thickness instead.
posted by Justinian at 12:30 AM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Worth comparing with A.E. Marriott's 1918 Trench Fighting manual (available on Scrib'd) which features many of the same techniques. Everything old is new again.

Here's some century old WWI Combatives stuff via Bloody Elbow (a surprisingly good resource for historical combatives information).
posted by longbaugh at 12:53 AM on July 1, 2014

The USMC Mark 2 Combat Knife aka the "Ka-Bar", the famous US fighting knife from WWII, was designed by Major Howard E. America, which was the second best name in US History after Hugh "Ironpants" Johnson. Very little biographical information remains as he was a REMF in the Quartermaster's office, but the Marines loved the hell out of their Ka-Bars. It's still present in large numbers in active combat units, albeit unofficially.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:58 AM on July 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Here's nice veteran Commando Trooper Stan W Scott rather politely demonstrating how to slice someone's throat out with a F-S knife.

What I like about the F-S knife is its elegance, almost hiding its lethal design, rather like Sykes himself being a gentleman who could kill you before you realise what's going on. This is in contrast to the Rambo-style knives which look brutish and are brutish. Both approaches are effective, but in different ways.
posted by milkb0at at 1:02 AM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Fairbairn demonstrates how to transition from a simple handshake
to a perfectly-executed rectum-shank

Dinner first would be nice
posted by thelonius at 1:40 AM on July 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

Trooper Scott is the world's most bad ass pensioner. I have a feeling I want to hear more stories from him, then again the matter-of-factness of his tales of violence might leave me a little disturbed.

Also, technically speaking, he doesn't describe slicing someone's throat out, so much as pushing it out from behind in a sort of impromptu surgury.
posted by C.A.S. at 2:30 AM on July 1, 2014

I'll correct you if I may C.A.S. - Steve Morris is the world's most bad ass pensioner. He is still ludicrously scary at 70+ and in his prime would have battered pretty much anyone with ease.
posted by longbaugh at 3:20 AM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd still rather have a Randall Model 1 though.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:38 AM on July 1, 2014

Very well put-together post, viggorlijah!
posted by Harald74 at 3:49 AM on July 1, 2014

I guess "fighting knife" sounds better than "murdering dagger."
posted by ryaninoakland at 4:33 AM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I guess "fighting knife" sounds better than "murdering dagger."

It has an elegant shape exactly because it is so purpose-built for that one thing. If it were multipurpose, it would be shaped differently -- more useful in real life, but less beautiful.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:40 AM on July 1, 2014

An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age.
posted by xedrik at 7:06 AM on July 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I was prepared to learn that Sykes was related to Sir Mark Sykes, co-architect of the Sykes–Picot Agreement, father of Christopher Sykes, and great-grandfather of Plum Sykes, but no. Eric Sykes was born Schwabe which he changed to Sykes in 1917 because it was "too German."

Which is a shame because there goes the joke about how that knife is almost as painful as Bergdorf Blondes.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:15 AM on July 1, 2014

O.K., but what if some great homicidal maniac comes after you with a bunch of loganberries?
posted by yoink at 7:21 AM on July 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Googling for images of the knife I found this image, interesting for its "Captain Fairbairn's Timetable of Death".
posted by achrise at 7:50 AM on July 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

I guess "fighting knife" sounds better than "murdering dagger."

Murder is a legal term. The Sykes was designed to kill, not to murder. Military people get citations for killing, they go to jail for murder. Even a seriously principled pacifist should be able to make the distinction between a simple psychopath and a man trying to do his job under adverse conditions.

By the way, one of the medics in our platoon was a conscientious objector. He said he would serve, but he wouldn't kill. He was a man of his word. the only weapon he ever carried was a standard issue .45 caliber pistol, which he once loaned to one of the scouts who'd run out of ammo. It was basically a lump of rust, impossible to fire, because he'd never taken it out of its holster.
posted by mule98J at 8:17 AM on July 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

The "Timetable of Death" reminds me of this scene in Spartacus.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 9:26 AM on July 1, 2014

The thing about calling it "knife fighting" is that rarely do two fighters draw their weapons and square off; that's dueling.

The knife is the weapon of the assassin in an urban setting. If you see the knife before it's close enough to damage you, the knifer has failed and is an amateur.

The book Put 'Em Down, Take 'Em Out!: Knife Fighting Techniques From Folsom Prison. The techniques described in the book can be analyzed in the documentary Gladiator Days: Anatomy of a Prison Murder. It drew a lot of hostility amongst the knife-dueling crowd because it's message was

A: Gang up on the victim by surprise and wrestle them to the ground
B: Stab repeatedly like the needle on a sewing machine.

S/F were no-bullshit guys who taught no-bullshit taking of human life. And the results are blood, urine, feces, and a corpse. That's Marc MacYoung, former street thug and author of multiple books on practical knife violence in the black.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:24 AM on July 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Reach and heft. Things you can bring to a knife fight and be assured of a win if you know it's going to be a one-on-one knife fight, even if they have a murder-dagger designed by professionals:

- Hammer (Sledge for the immediate knock-out and psych edge, claw for speed and accuracy)
- Barstool
- Pool cue (half, weighted)
- A sock full of rocks (or doorknobs or scrap-ends of lumber or bars of soap)
- Plastic shopping bag with the above, also 2-liter or 6-pack of soda.
- Backpack full of schoolbooks
- A recently planted sapling you can uproot by hand
- Louisville Slugger, for psychological warfare bonus
- Aluminum baseball bat, for Primus bonus
- Axe handle
- Axe
- Hatchet
- Camp saw
- Carpenter's Crosscut and/or Rip saw (non-Japanese)
- Crosscut and/or Rip saw (Japanese)
- Floor lamp
- Table lamp
- Kitchen chair
- BBQ propane tank
- BBQ (if liftable)
- Bowling pin
- Local police officer
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:05 PM on July 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

A friend of mine used to be a pool shark way back when. One day after he got his gear and his winnings for the day, he got onto the elevator to head home. As the doors close, a man rushes in to presumably also head out. A couple seconds later, as the elevator descends, the guy turns towards him, pulls a knife and says "I got a knife." My friend turns towards him, pulls a revolver and says "I've got a gun." The bell dings, the doors open, the guy with a knife shoots out of there like a rocket.
posted by P.o.B. at 7:47 PM on July 1, 2014

I've got one.
posted by valkane at 10:37 PM on July 18, 2014

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